What are Postcards?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 April 2020
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Postcards are rectangular-shaped dual sided pieces of thick paper that are used for mailings without the need to utilize an envelope. The modern incarnation of the postcard usually includes a picture or other image on one side of the card, with space reserved for a mailing address, postage, and a message on the opposite side. They are routinely used for a wide range of personal and business purposes and tend to be more cost-effective than mailing letters through a national postal system.

Many people use the terms postcards and postal cards interchangeably. Technically, there are a couple of subtle differences between these two types of mailing cards. Postcards usually require the addition of postage to the surface of the card, and are manufactured by business corporations. By contrast, postal cards are printed by national postal systems and include the appropriate amount of postage pre-printed on the facing of the card.

While there is some difference of opinion on when postcards first came into existence, it is possible to verify that the first postcard was patented in the United States during the middle of the 19th century. The patent was issued to John P. Charlton, a resident of Philadelphia in 1861. There is also evidence that simple versions gained in popularity in the United Kingdom and in Europe over the next twenty years, and have remained a viable means of sending written communications ever since.


These cards became common mailing pieces that were well-established by the latter part of the 19th century. Christmas postcards were extremely popular well into the 20th century and are still popular alternatives to the traditional Christmas card today. Hotels, resorts, and various types of exotic vacation spots began to offer picture postcards depicting local scenery by the dawn of the 20th century, providing both keepsakes and a simple way to promote the location.

These cards also offered a great way to market new movie releases, traveling vaudeville shows, and stage production touring companies. A few weeks before the new attraction was due to arrive in town, promoters would mail the cards to local residents, advising them of the dates for the shows, the venue involved, and the cost for tickets. Using the postcard as an advance publicity tool remains a viable business practice today.

Rising postal rates have made postcards one of the most popular direct mail pieces in recent years. Always a cost-effective means of advertising services and products, these cards make it possible to cut costs on the production of high quality mailing pieces. They also save money on postage expenses, and expedite the mailing process itself, since they do not require the folding, stuffing and sealing tasks associated with other types of direct mail pieces.

Today, the range of postcards cover just about every type of mailed communication one can imagine. In addition to the still popular Christmas and travel cards, marketing postcards are used with greater frequency than ever before. Wedding postcards have emerged as a simple and fun alternative to more formal wedding invitations and announcements.

It is even possible to create postcards as electronic or e-cards. These e-cards are simple printable cards that can be inserted into the body of an email or sent as an attachment to an email. While e-cards are an emerging application of traditional postcards, there is reason to believe that the use of this type of marketing tool will increase over the next several years.


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